Chrissy Judy, the gorgeous feature debut from writer-director-star Todd Flaherty, is an archly funny platonic love story between two best friends called Chrissy and Judy, played by Wyatt Fenner and Flaherty, who also perform together in a drag act going nowhere.
When Chrissy decamps New York for a promising relationship in Philadelphia, Judy is adrift, trying to figure out what kind of artist and person to be. It’s a film that drops you into its characters’ lives with no exposition, like an episode of The Wire about drag queens, and you soon find yourself rooting hard for Judy to win.
Flaherty started writing screenplays when he was a New York actor who, he says, “could not get work.” When he did, it was often as an understudy for a straight actor playing a gay role. (As a gay actor with a strong sense of irony, his reaction was a mix of bewilderment and amusement.) He now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Chrissy Judy premiered to a rapturous response in June. It is now playing in theaters and is available on demand this Tuesday.
In the piece below, he explains how he made Chrissy Judy with help from his cinematographer brother, Brendan Flaherty, who shoots the film in a majestic style reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ work on Manhattan. — M.M.
When MovieMaker asked me to write about filming a rom-com on a budget of $20,000, I thought about how much privilege one really needs to make a film. I spent most of my twenties and early thirties struggling to pay rent and bills, and when I set out to make Chrissy Judy, I really had no idea how it was going to happen, but I pushed ahead knowing I would make the film by whatever means necessary.
Todd Flaherty on the Origins of Chrissy Judy
With the help of some interested parties, in 2019, I went out to L.A. from New York, found a producer, and was set to make the film for about $150,000. That was more money than I could fathom having, and even at that point I had people asking, “Oh my God, how are you going to pull this off?” I wondered that too.
Then the pandemic hit and our main investor decided to pull out. Despite that crushing news, my newfound creative team and I tried to forge ahead, until finally we realized: Oh, this is serious. The world is shutting down. We’re not filming the movie this summer.
Timing is everything. I was at peace with putting the project on hold, but determined to make it happen by the following summer. An opportunity presented itself for me to relocate to Provincetown, so I did. My brother, Brendan works on Saturday Night Live, which consumes much of his life, but that summer, things had slowed down.
Story continues after our podcast interview with Todd Flaherty, available on Apple, wherever you get your podcasts, or right here on Spotify:
While in Provincetown, two other investors on Chrissy Judy told me to keep their portion of the funds and do something creative with it. “Make art!” they told me. So I called Brendan, knowing he had some free time, told him about a short film I had written, and by the end of August we made this beautiful little film with a crew comprised of myself, Brendan, and his lovely wife Isabele as our sound mixer (she learned how to operate the boom and Zoom recorder on the ride up to P-town from New York).
With myself acting as the lead, and another actor, we took $3,000 and made a little 12-minute film in two days that looked like it had a huge budget. It ran the festival circuit in 2021 and audiences really responded to the writing, acting, and stunning cinematography.
Making the short satisfied an urge to create, but by the fall of 2020, I was stressed again, trying to find money to make Chrissy Judy. Brendan had seen the ups and downs of my career for over a decade and read many drafts of the script over the course of three years.
He knew what I was after: a chance to show people the type of work I wanted to create and tell a queer story I had never before seen on film. He wanted to help me get there. Inspired by the work we did on our short film, one day he called me very excited. “You know what?” he said. “Let’s just fucking do it. Let’s figure out how to make this movie.”
I thought, We made something incredible with our short, maybe we could do it with a feature? I had some money saved up, and we had a few investors who came in, but what really set us up for success was the new SAG Micro-Budget Project Agreement, allowing filmmakers to work with union actors on any project shot under $20,000.
It seemed like the perfect benchmark — challenging, but not impossible. And most importantly, we could hire the actors we’d been wanting to work with — Wyatt Fenner, Joey Taranto, James Tison, and Nicole Spiezio to name a few.
Todd Flaherty on How to Make a Movie for $20K
I just want to be clear: Making a feature film for $20,000 with as many locations as we shot in (New York City, Fire Island, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Provincetown) was exhausting. As the director and lead actor, it would have been great to hire a producer and assistant director to make the days run more efficiently.
Not to mention, my brother literally did the work of seven people on set every day. He was incredible! Major cost savings came by using his Sony S7iii and just TWO lenses that he already happened to own for the entire film. Additionally, we had no lighting kit. Pretty much everything that you see is all natural light, or lighting that came with our locations.
We bought a gimbal, a boom and two lav mics, and Isabele came on once again as our “self-taught” sound mixer. It was a family affair.
The script was originally 103 pages. Before we started production, I said, Okay, well, here are all of the things we’re just not going to be able to shoot with our money. And so we ended up whittling it down to about 85 pages. And I kept saying: “Okay — show, not tell. Show, not tell. What’s essential here?” And production started to feel doable.
Despite all of the film’s settings, it turned into this really simple story, the heart of which is just about a person who is trying to figure out who he is without his best friend by his side. And that journey of discovering yourself in solitude, despite needing that external validation from friends and lovers, was a universal story that made it easier to find other people to get on board with favors, free locations, anything to help keep us on budget. I like to joke that we made this film with scotch tape and a lot of love.
I also took on the tedious task of editing the film, which saved us thousands in post production costs. Let me tell you, editing a film you wrote, directed and starred in is a very humbling experience! Like any filmmaker, I had moments watching different cuts thinking, “Oh, this moment could have landed better.”
Or, “I wish we had one more take here. Or a better closeup there.” But I have to look at it as a whole and say, my God, we made this for $20,000 in 16 days over the course of two months…That’s insane! We were able to pull it off with so many limitations and I’m really proud of it.
As I said before, I had no idea how this was going to come together, so if you’re a young filmmaker (in experience, not age, per se) the main thing to do is to create forward momentum. Make what you can with the resources at hand. People always come to me with ideas for a film and I say, “Write it!” They come with a script asking the best way to get started.
I say, “Film a small chunk. See what you can do with nothing first.” Inevitably, your early work will not be as good as you want it to be, but if you keep making films, they do get better.
I’m thinking again of the privilege it takes to make a film. The truth is, you have to create your own privilege and opportunities by thinking creatively…always. When you set out to make a feature film, when you lay the groundwork and start telling people what you’re doing, they will want to join. Most people are willing to jump on a moving train that has momentum.
One morning on set at a theater in New Jersey, we lost our location for the evening’s shoot, but that didn’t halt production. We needed to film two very pivotal scenes that morning, so that was at the forefront of my focus.
Once we concluded those shoots, on the car ride back to New York, we called every single person in our contact lists and, as luck had it, we got a new location that turned out to be even more ideal and cinematic than the original location. It wasn’t what I had initially pictured as right for the story, but by thinking creatively, we made it work.
And we got the location as a favor from someone who heard what we were doing and just wanted to be a part of it. I could have just said, “Let’s cancel the shoot and try to pick it up later.” But if you forge ahead, trusting your vision, the creative mind and spirit will open doors.
After filming wrapped, some friends asked, “If someone sees a cut and approaches you with the original $150,000 you wanted, would you reshoot it?” And the truthful answer is, no. Not only because that never happens, but also because, in reality, we would have made the same movie.
Sure, more people would have been involved to lighten the load here and there, and maybe some of the shots would have been technically cleaner, but the beauty of working on something so small was that the artistic integrity of the film and my vision for it wasn’t clouded by dozens of other people on set. It was a really special experience and one I’m incredibly grateful for.
Ultimately the story I wrote just needed to be told and I would have figured out how to do that with any size budget. If you’re like me and you have a story in your heart you want to share, you’ll figure it out too. Look at the resources you have and start there, the rest will reveal itself. I never imagined the response we’d get to Chrissy Judy.
We’re finding a bigger and bigger audience each day and by the end of last year, we’d played on four continents around the world. It’s mind-blowing. And the most exciting part of all, now that we managed to accomplish such an incredible feat, is that everyone wants to know: “What’s next?”
Chrissy Judy is now in theaters and available on video on demand.
Main image: Todd Flaherty